By Matthew VanWinkle
While contemplating an Italian sunset in 1822, Byron couldn’t resist getting in a dig at his friend Shelley’s affection for the previous generation’s poetry: “Where is the green your Laker talks such fustian about? . . . Who ever saw a green sky?”1 The Laker in question is Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the meteorological observation drawing Byron’s ire occurs in “Dejection: An Ode” (1817), Coleridge’s anguished exploration of a damaged response to the natural world and the implications of this damage for his poetic vocation. It’s tempting to attribute Byron’s objection to the zest he takes in stirring things up generally, or to his intermittently vehement distaste for the Lake School of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey specifically. Yet Byron’s snarkiness on this point is far from idiosyncratic. Romantic era poetry frequently and famously evokes Nature with a capital N, but these evocations sometimes lead a reader to wonder if the devotion to the big picture comes at the expense of acute observation. More pointedly, the big picture seems less a landscape with a life of its own and more a portrait of the artist’s own ambitions. Nature is unmistakably present, even prominent, in romantic era poems, but what, or who, is it there for?
Coleridge’s ode presents a range of possible answers to this question. At the very least, the green sky in “Dejection” suggests a considerable degree of attention to the speaker’s surroundings. That sort of chromatic shift can occasionally precede especially severe weather, and the poem begins with the anticipation of an impending storm. Coleridge’s awareness of the phenomenon (perhaps rarer in his day than in an era wrenched by climate change) attests to the sustained cultivation of his local knowledge. On this occasion, however, his awareness leads neither to an appreciation of the celestial palette nor to a self-congratulation on the speaker’s eco-aesthetic refinement:
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green:
And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!
“Serene” subtly concedes a stifled desire, a hope that what the green sky portends will shake up something that has been quiet, too quiet, in the scene the speaker confronts. For something is too quiet in him as well; the splendors above him only go retina deep: “I see them all so excellently fair, / I see, not feel how beautiful they are!” The speaker needs more than a vision to raise his sunken spirits and so he turns to nature with the expectation that it will perform this heavy lifting.
This expectation need not be merely self-serving. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” Coleridge exhorts nature to attend to his friend Charles Lamb’s even profounder distress, the intertwined burdens of his sister’s intermittent madness and his mother’s death:
So my Friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
Nature here ministers to a mind on the edge of disease, but it works in the service of a presence larger than that mind, larger even than itself. Coleridge asks a lot of nature in this moment, but he couches his request in a shared deference to divine authority. The tacit analogous plea in “Dejection” lacks this leveling impulse, but it still does not conspicuously privilege self-regard over the natural world it calls into service.
Given the confidence Coleridge has placed in nature’s restorative power in the past, the disavowal of this power at the dark heart of “Dejection” lands with disconcerting force: “O Lady! we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does nature live: / Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud!” The severity of this shock cannot be overstated. It goes beyond the speaker’s anxiety that nature cannot help him with his current distress. It radically recasts any previous ascription of benevolence to nature as delusion, as self-assurance masquerading as sympathy from an external vitality. Nature is not merely indifferent; it is effectively inanimate. Pointedly, it becomes less animate as the metaphors of marriage and burial insistently anthropomorphize it, as the ode avows that the way to understand nature’s insufficiency is in specifically human terms. The long unraveling of Coleridge’s own marriage provides some unignorable context here, but over and above this biographical reality the mourning of the loss of connection reveals how suspicious and fraught the assumption of this connection had been all along. The first subsequent attempt in “Dejection” to salvage this relationship falls back on the same assumption: “Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power, / Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower.” This concedes that what we find in nature isn’t just what we’ve already seen in the mind’s eye, that nature really does offer something itself, but it does so only by remaining grounded in rather than developing an alternative to the terms of the preceding catastrophic rupture.
The ode’s concluding movement aims at recuperating what it can from this devastating repudiation of its initial aspiration. Before turning to that effort, it might be worth considering how absolute this aspiration is elsewhere in Coleridge’s poetry. It finds its most resonant articulation in “The Eolian Harp”:
O the one life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so filled.
Despite some anxious hedging—“should have been impossible” stops short of declaring something achieved—the delighted fusion of inner life and outer world articulated here absorbs and transports. Its fullness, however, remains open to a version of Byron’s skepticism about green skies. If one loves all things in such a world, how exactly are they experienced? What do they look like, sound like, apart from sight and sound itself? Intuitively appealing as it is, the one life risks celebrating the power of perception over and above anything it might actually perceive. To look most luminously is to look past everything in particular. When romantic era appreciations of nature fail to persuade us, they often lead us to rub our eyes at this sort of oversight.
Both the crisis in “Dejection” and the attempt to resolve it potentially blur under such scrutiny. Yet the aspiration and the exasperation alike accept a highly constrained, all or nothing range of relationships between human consciousness and the natural world. Either mind and nature are absolutely identical or they are insurmountably alien to each other. Our current urgent conversations on this relationship often devolve into this degree of constraint: sustainability can only deprive humans of indispensable comforts, human habitation in its present form can only be irreparable environmental depredation. As the speaker’s crisis in “Dejection” deepens, it becomes increasingly interior. It makes sense, then, that the way out of this despondency is also a return to nature. It is not, however, the resumption of an overly broad assumption of identification with nature.
The storm that has been looming all along finally breaks in the penultimate stanza of “Dejection.” More accurately, it has been under way for some stretch of time before the speaker realizes it: “the wind, / Which long has raved unnoticed / [. . .] / ravest without, / Bare craig, or mountain-tarn, or blasted tree, / Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb.” As the speaker speculates on the wind’s wrath, he lingers over particular features of landscape, dwelling on aspects of nature not yet reduced to a resource for human activity. A cynical reading might hear in the wind’s raving a license for the speaker’s own fulminations, and indeed he goes on to liken the sound of the storm to “the rushing of a host in rout, / With groans of trampled men, with smarting wounds— / At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!” Yet as soon as this is imagined it is contradicted by a competing possibility, and a less ranting register emerges: “another tale, with sounds less deep and loud! / [. . .] / ‘Tis of a little child / Upon a lonesome wild, / Not far from home, but she hath lost her way.” The relationship between mind and nature is not so simple here as poet-say, nature-do. There’s resemblance, but that resemblance cannot be reduced to mere symmetrical reflection. Nature may storm, but the poet may or may not rant. The poet may want the ceaseless stirring of the tempest for inspiration, but the storm may or may not sustain it. When the speaker concludes with a benediction to a distant lady, the calm that comes with it must be happening somewhere else, a matter of interior equanimity uncorroborated by a correspondingly tranquil landscape: “Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice; / To her may all things live, from pole to pole, / Their life the eddying of her living soul!” This doesn’t rule out the possibility that this elation might meet with harmonizing confirmation, but it declines to locate such an invigorating confluence with any precision.
Helen MacDonald, one of our best current observers of nature, has recently
offered this estimation of storms:
No weather so perfectly conjures a sense of foreboding, of anticipation and waiting, as the eerie stillness that often occurs before the first fat drops of rain, when storm light first makes luminous all roofs and fields and strands black silhouettes of trees on the horizon. This is the storm as expectation. As solution about to be offered. Or all hell about to break loose.
When romantic visions of nature look off, they often insist on a reliable transition between expectation and event. It’s not that such transitions aren’t possible; it’s that they’re not inevitable, or even inevitably desirable should they come to pass. It’s remarkable that a poem like “Dejection” expects a storm from its very first line and still misses the “first fat drops” that fall. The speaker becomes so paradoxically fascinated by his exhausted capacity for fascination that he actually doesn’t acknowledge the storm without has arrived until it is well under way:
Hence viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed.
This very oversight nevertheless reminds us of the limits of our vision, that nature is almost always more than what we see, more than what we can expect, even when we get an unlikely shade of the sky exactly right.
Matthew VanWinkle is an associate professor of English at Idaho State University,
with research interests in nineteenth-century British poetry and in Gothic fiction.
His most recent work examines the use of romantic-era poetry in the television
series Penny Dreadful.